By Rich Myhre
SEATTLE – Since the Seattle SuperSonics joined the National Basketball Association in the fall of 1967, dozens of good centers have come through the league.
Alas, not many have come through Seattle.
Bob Rule was a capable big man in the early years of the franchise. And Jack Sikma, a converted power forward, delivered seven All-Star seasons – not to mention the team’s only league championship – during the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Since Sikma left in the summer of 1986, finding a top-notch center has usually been foremost on Seattle’s annual wish list. And always, it seems, the Sonics have been disappointed. Sometimes greatly, sometimes moderately, but always disappointed.
There has been no shortage of center candidates, just talent.
Some, like Bill Cartwright and Patrick Ewing, were good players past their primes. Others, like Horace Grant and Sam Perkins, were forwards being asked to play the middle. Still others were simply athletes of average to marginal abilities. Who can forget – goodness knows, we’d like to – fellows like Benoit Benjamin, Olden Polynice and Jim McIlvaine?
The search has been particularly exasperating since 1996, the last time the Sonics reached the NBA Finals. The next season, Seattle gave big free-agent dollars to McIlvaine, who supposedly had up-and-coming potential. Two years passed before the Sonics, owning up to their mistake, packed McIlvaine off to New Jersey.
Enter Polynice, who lasted just one ho-hum season before he, too, was discarded. Then Grant, a hard-working and productive player, but obviously someone better suited to forward. A year later, Grant gave way to an aging Ewing. Keeping with form, Ewing also went elsewhere at the end of the season.
This year, the Sonics will unveil their fifth different center in as many seasons as they introduce 6-foot-11 Calvin Booth, the heir apparent to the team’s not-so-shining center legacy. When Seattle was unable to revamp its roster by dealing high-priced stars Gary Payton and/or Vin Baker_ Seattle weighed offers throughout the summer, then decided to stand pat – the signing of Booth to a six-year contract for around $34 million became the team’s primary offseason transaction.
But is he the answer?
The best response from all the Sonics, and maybe even Booth himself – We’ll see.
“I just believe in coming in and working hard, and everything else will take care of itself,” said Booth, who is a bright, diligent and defensive-minded young man. “I really and truly believe that winning takes care of everything. Nobody worries about money and contracts when you win games and win playoff games and win championships. You never heard in Chicago people talking about (Michael) Jordan’s and (Scottie) Pippen’s salaries when they were winning championships. With the Lakers now, you never hear them talking about Shaq (O’Neal) and Kobe (Bryant), and their contracts, because they’re winning championships.
“And that’s my No. 1 goal here, for us to have success as a team. If you win, everything takes care of itself.”
Booth, knows he will be watched closely this season. Everyone, from fans and media to his coaches and teammates, knows Seattle needs strong play at center to contend in the NBA’s rugged Western Conference.
Payton, for one, wants to see how Booth fares against rivals like O’Neal and Portland’s Rasheed Wallace. “Then we’ll see just how he’s going to do,” Payton said. “But the way he’s been playing (in practice and the preseason), he’s been playing very well. He’s doing a good job.”
Booth, who attended Penn State, was a second-round draft pick of the Washington Wizards in 1999. After playing sparingly as a rookie, he returned to Washington last season, but was part of the massive midseason deal that sent Juwan Howard from the Wizards to Dallas. Washington and then-team president Michael Jordan wanted to keep Booth, but reportedly had to include him in the package to get Dallas to take Howard and his huge (originally, $121 million) contract.
Likewise, Dallas wanted to keep Booth this past offseason. He was, however, a restricted free agent and the Mavericks could not match (because of salary cap restrictions) the dollars Seattle was offering.
Last season, Booth averaged 5.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots a game for the Wizards and Mavericks. Those modest numbers, particularly the blocked shots, become more notable considering he played just 16.9 minutes a game. If he gets 30-plus minutes per night Booth just might lead the league in blocks, something no Sonic has ever done.
“I feel like I have a nice enough (shooting) touch that I can score around the basket,” Booth said. “If I rebound and block shots, and give myself an opportunity to get enough minutes, I’m going to score. But that’s not my No. 1 priority. My first priority is to rebound and block shots.”
Payton, who has endured Seattle’s long and frustrating search for a gifted big man, is cautious in his appraisal of Booth.
“Calvin is a very smart basketball player,” Payton said. “He gets to the open spots and he shoots the ball well. He just has a knack for knowing how to play the game. With him being active, blocking shots and getting rebounds, I think he’s going to be a big difference for us in the middle.”
Likewise, Seattle’s coaches and front office have an attitude of patient optimism. New general manager Rick Sund points out that Booth has progressed steadily in his career, starting at high school and then to college and the NBA.
“I think the expectation for him is to be able to continue to grow,” Sund said. “Hopefully he’s a late bloomer. And he’s young, which is really good for us.”